PM Abadi faces tough job putting Iraq back together

Abbadi must overcome sectarianism in leadership for hope defeat ISIS

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Faced with the growing threat of ISIS in Iraq, new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a lot on his plate. “The man with the toughest job in the world right now” is Abadi, said Stuart Bowen, former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction from 2004-2013.

Fortunately, Baghdad has not fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, at least for now, despite the militant group’s advances recently. Many, including Pentagon Press Secretary Admiral John Kirby have said that Baghdad is not under “imminent threat of falling.”

But Iraq is not Baghdad alone and many parts of the country have fallen under the militant group’s control. In recent months, ISIS has been fighting to seize Anbar Province and most recently succeeded in taking over the city of Hit.

Their takeover of strategic areas is quickly making them one of the world’s most powerful jihadist groups. ISIS’s advance is fuelled by power vacuums in Iraq and Syria as well as sectarian divisions in those countries.

“Sectarianism is a part of their strategy here and sowing those tensions is certainly something they’re after. There’s no question about that,” said the Pentagon press secretary.

In an effort to reverse the trend, the United States has been pushing Iraqi politicians toward an inclusive government. Most recently, Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken visited Iraq and discussed with politicians there the “progress in forming an inclusive government and in resolving political differences so that the strongest possible force is brought to bear against ISIL,” the White House said.

During his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC this week, Bowen said that Iraq “is at its worst point in history in at least the last 100 years.”

U.N. figures show that over one million Iraqis have been displaced by ISIS, including thousands of Yazidis who were driven out of their areas in Mount of Sinjar. Reports estimate that about 33,000 families were displaced following ISIS’ takeover of Sinjar.

Onus on Iraqis

Bowen said that the onus of getting Iraq back on track must be put on the Iraqis. The first order of business for Abadi is to appoint a minister of defense to lead the charge against ISIS.

After losing Mosul to ISIS, the Iraqi Army appears to be in shambles and now the only hope Iraq has to combat ISIS is the Peshmerga, who’s patience, and resources will wear thin, according to experts.

The appointment of ministers of defense and interior has been delayed twice by opposition from the parliament, on account of sectarianism. Abadi’s choice for interior minister is reported to be Hadi al-Amiri, who reportedly has a history with the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Badr Corps. This will likely not sit well with the Sunni lawmakers.

For minister of defense, Abadi is set to re-nominate Jaber al-Jaberi, who is a Sunni, but was rejected by the parliament last month, reportedly because U.S. diplomats backed his appointment.

Observers are hoping that the transition from Maliki to Abadi would bring with it change and a shift from sectarian politics and policies. Hope may be turning to concern, given that two months into Abadi’s leadership, he has been unable to successfully nominate and gain the approval of the two key security leaders in the country.

Besides, the Iraqi leadership would have to move beyond fishing in the same, frequented, pond for choices to break the status quo. “Corruption is a cancer in Iraq. It’s a cancer that has been metastasizing for 10 years,” Bowen said.

The reality of the situation now is that because of the sectarian environment in Iraq, “Shia troops don’t want to die in Sunni provinces,” Bowen said.

Many in the U.S. armed forces have described ISIS’ functionality in Iraq now as “fragmented,” which at the very least, gives Abadi some time to break down the more systematic sectarian rifts.

U.S. airstrikes are seemingly also giving the security situation in Iraq a little relief. However, Kathleen Hicks, CSIS’ chair for their International Security Program, said that the United States and allies’ military strategy is “not a 30 day bombing campaign,” but rather a longer term engagement—one that must be led by the Iraqis.

The ISIS social media machine is swelling the internet with videos of beheadings and other markings of their gruesome campaign to build a caliphate. But all is not lost, experts say. The answer to Iraq’s stability is possible and within sight. If Abadi and his leadership are able to change the status quo and move past sectarianism, a unified Iraqi army and government has a clear chance to curb the advancement of ISIS.